In the deep northeast of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, the city of Sandakan clings to the coast. Grey and wet, its air thick with humidity as fits of construction sound in the distance, Sandakan is the second-largest city in the Malaysian state of Sabah, and the former capital of colonial British North Borneo.
Located on the Sulu Sea, just east of the South China Sea, Sandakan sits at a crossroads of Asian maritime trade routes. Muslim sultans, Chinese merchants, Japanese soldiers, and the Malaysian government dominated the city throughout the years. Malays, Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Filipinos, among many other ethnicities, have all called Sandakan home—as well as the site of their eternal slumber.
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While these communities possess different funerary rites, there’s a shared belief across Asia, rooted in millennia of folklore, that the dead must be appeased. There are strict guidelines to be followed with the deceased, lest one incur the wrath of the spirit world.
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Different cultures have different methods for interring their bodies, but in Sandakan, where demographic mashup is the status quo, ethnicities mingle both above and below ground. A fine example in the Sandakan Cemetery, one of the most fascinating burial grounds in all of Asia.
The cemetery occupies essentially an entire valley that cuts into the jungle hills surrounding Sandakan. Age and neglect have left their mark, with gravestones eroded by the rain.
The first portion of the cemetery is Chinese, as befits a Malaysian city with a high Chinese population. Here, the graves adhere to ancient feng shui principles aimed at soothing the spirits of the dead. Each grave vaguely resembles a home, which is an intentional design quirk; a home with good feng shui should be built backing into a mountain or hill, with flowing water in front. In the same vein, many of Sandakan’s Chinese graves are backed by solid horseshoe arches, which block the winds of bad luck from disturbing the body within.
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As you proceed further into the valley cemetery, you may find old charnel houses containing the bones of extended Chinese families, buried in structures that accommodate the dead of entire clans. From a distance, you can see artwork painted onto these buildings that depicts Taoist guardian deities, charged with protecting the dead from negative energy (this should go without saying, but do not enter these funerary clan houses). As the jungle reclaims the land, the oldest Chinese graves and clan houses slip into disrepair. Traditional beliefs hold that these unkempt tombs are spiritual poison—a potential source of guǐ (ghosts)—and hence left to crumble.
Indian laborers, soldiers, and merchants arrived in Sandakan with the British Empire, and a significant Indian community remains in the city. Near the Chinese cemetery, across a rocky mud path, one can find a sign for a Hindu and Sikh burning ground, called a shmashāna in Sanskrit.
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In both faiths, cremation is the common means of corpse disposal, and in both faiths, the cremation site—or burning grounds—is a space where the physical and spiritual worlds overlap. By burning the body, the soul is released from the temporal world. Yet the actual space and condition of the cremation must adhere to rigorous standards of ritual purity, lest spirits be aroused and angered.
There is a Bengali hymn that praises the dark goddess Kali, who stalks and protects the shmashāna.
Because thou lovest the Burning Ground
I have made a Burning Ground of my heart
That thou, Dark One, hunter of the Burning Ground
May dance thy eternal dance
Nought else is within my heart, Oh Mother:
Day and night blazes the funeral pyre;
The ashes of the dead, strewn all about
I have preserved against thy coming…
The final section of Sandakan cemetery is also the smallest, and arguably, most famous. It’s also the area that may vanish in coming years; aside from a few expats, no Japanese community currently calls Sandakan home.
The crumbling Japanese section of the Sandakan Cemetery contains the remains of Japanese who settled here from the 1890s on. Many of these people were coolies and merchants, but there’s also a large number of village and lower class girls who worked as prostitutes in the ‘Sandakan No. 8’ brothel. Their tale, and the discrimination they faced (as well as, to be fair, the kindness they received from their Madame, Kinoshita Kuni), is told in the popular 1974 Japanese movie Sandakan No. 8.
The presence of all those interred can be felt in the hot, humid winds that caress this haunting jungle cemetery of Sandakan.